Review | Borrowing the eyes of artists to better appreciate life

Late in life, Francis Bacon complained to his friend, the critic David Sylvester, of the hopelessness of talking about painting: “One never does anything but talk around it — because if you could explain your painting, you would be explaining your instincts.” Former BBC arts editor Will Gompertz is not quite so pessimistic. In “See What You’re Missing: New Ways of Looking at the World Through Art,” he appraises his subjects’ visual instincts and what we might learn from them.

Gompertz considers artists “expert lookers” who perceive the world more deeply and satisfyingly than the rest of us. His examples, which follow no explicit program or order, range from David Hockney to Wassily Kandinsky, Yayoi Kusama, Artemisia Gentileschi, Jennifer Packer and the 11th-century Chinese landscapist Guo Xi. Gompertz’s account differs from others, he suggests, in combining explorations of both “how looking can add to our appreciation of artists” and “how artists look, adding to our appreciation of life.” Does the one lend insight to the other?

There are passages of charm. “They talk of people seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses,” Gompertz writes. Hockney’s lenses “are on a permanent St-Tropez setting, where everything is lit up by an explosion of bright colors in a rapturous celebration of life.” Agnes Martin was “a hunter in the jungle of her imagination: stalking, watching, sensing, readied.” I enjoyed Gompertz’s profiles of the one-of-a-kind sculptors El Anatsui and Eva Hesse.

On the whole, however, the analysis and turns of phrase are not particularly profound or satisfying. On Frida Kahlo and her work: “You can’t paint hurt without hurting.” How much, one wonders, are the reputations of “painful” pictures informed by biography? Gompertz does not say. If we adopt Rembrandt’s “lead,” he observes, we “take a long, hard look at ourselves and render what we see in a self-portrait. The result might not be a great work of art but at least it’d be a selfie with a bit of soul.”

Dealers, museums and galleries are “upmarket.” Cy Twombly’s abstraction is like “Chandler in ‘Friends’: hard to like at first, but totally irresistible after a few encounters.” Paul Cézanne’s career is strewn with “game-changing” moments and events. His “compositional style” would “probably go down with the art establishment like a dodgy prawn on a cruise ship.” Paula Rego’s “The Dance” has “a distinct Agatha Christie vibe.” Divining shapes was “the basis” of Georgia O’Keeffe’s gift: “There should be an app for it.”

“See What You’re Missing” belongs loosely to the “last line” genre; that is, any book, play or film in which the spirit of the work’s title is channeled into its concluding utterance or phrase. (For every “Chinatown,” there is an “Iron Man.”) Gompertz ends most chapters in this vein, with an insistent reminder of his “looking and seeing” theme.

Fra Angelico’s achievement? “There is no fixed reality, as this friar-painter demonstrated — it all depends on your perspective.” Regarding Gentileschi: “She removed the blinkers of assumption and presumption and showed us what we had been missing in all those classic stories — a female point of view.” Packer: “She has taught herself to see what is not there, and to show us that what is not present tells us as much about our world as what is.” A single throwaway line may be necessary. Arrayed one after another, these maxims begin to grate.

“I now wake up on a cloudy day with glee, not gloom,” Gompertz writes near the end of the book, “having been shown the magnificence of a brooding skyscape by the romantic painter John Constable. If I’m feeling a little down, I think about Agnes Martin sitting alone in her adobe house in New Mexico and wonder how she sat waiting for an optimistic feeling, which then cheers me up. And, when I open a bottle of beer,” he relates, “I hold the metal top in my hand for a moment and see it as a dab of ‘paint’ in one of El Anatsui’s wonderful hanging mosaic sculptures.” Gompertz is enthusiastic and open-minded, yet he rarely surprises; real seeing cannot fail to.

Max Carter is vice chairman of 20th- and 21st-century art at Christie’s in New York.

See What You’re Missing

New Ways of Looking at the World Through Art

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